Avonworth maps future of schools

 By NANCY WHYTE

More than 200 people attended Avonworth’s “Pathways for the Future” town hall two-hour meeting, held Wednesday Feb. 22, in the primary center, where superintendent Tom Ralston discussed the district’s plans to focus on the personalization of learning, interdisciplinary learning and the use of space and time throughout the various classroom buildings.

Ralston began the meeting by thanking the attendees for the “great turn-out,” which he said illustrated the community’s commitment to education. He then emphasized that the purpose of the district’s planned modifications was “not about fixing something that was wrong, but to make something good even better.” Ralston also stated that the anticipated changes would not trigger a tax increase and that future projections currently indicated that a tax increase may not be needed for several years.

Ralston explained that the current education format typically used in American classrooms, with a teacher standing in front lecturing and students arranged in rows facing forward, was essentially the same model created in 1896 by the Committee of Ten to standardize the American high school curriculum to prepare workers, many of whom were new immigrants, for the assembly-lines of factory work. Ralston said education needed to adapt to today’s increased technology and workplace needs. He said that during the meeting, he would outline the district’s plans and then, with the assistance of various administrators, he would welcome audience participation to suggest ideas or to have questions answered.

The district’s anticipated changes are the result of months of surveying, research and visits to other schools. Ralston said a mix of more than 70 parents, teachers, administrators, students and community members participated in meetings last August to explore the question, “What is most important for students to learn and how should they learn it? Eventually, three areas were identified for further exploration: personalized learning, interdisciplinary learning connections, and the use of space and time.

According to Ralston, focus groups then “hit the road,” both literally and figuratively. Hours of research were conducted and selected schools in Pennsylvania and other states were visited. Ralston outlined the best practices and ideas that were gleaned for possible inclusion in the Avonworth district. Those results included: increased project-based learning, job shadowing and internships, integrated learning, a modified/flexible block schedule (fewer, but longer, classes per day) and large, flexible learning spaces.

Ralston explained that the previously-planned move of sixth grade students from the middle school building to the elementary building provided a unique opportunity for reimagining the high school. One such change coinciding with that move is a delay in the start time for high school students. Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, both the middle school and the high school will begin the school day at 8 a.m. The later start time, according to research Ralston cited, better meets the circadian rhythms of teenagers and thus reduces stress created by inadequate sleep. He said that schools that have moved to later starting times have experienced happier, healthier students with improved student achievement.

Ralston said the master schedule of the high school will be rebooted, and will move away from the traditional eight-period schedule and instead be transformed into flexible blocks beginning in the 2018-19 school year. Additionally, Ralston expects that the Career Academies, which have been an option for high school students for several years, may be modified into a required “Personal Pathways Program” for all students to explore career paths. The program would include an increased emphasis on and opportunities for job shadowing and actual internships as well as mentoring opportunities. Ralston also noted a planned shift in the responsibilities of high school guidance counselors. Rather than all counselors providing all services, one counselor would concentrate on career and college opportunities, while the other two counselors would focus on academic and social-emotional matters.

Studies suggest that subject matter is often better learned and retained when topics are reinforced by interdisciplinary teaching. Such teaching can involve different classes exploring a common topic separately but simultaneously, or can also be multiple teachers collaborating and team-teaching together. An example would be both English and social studies covering the Holocaust, with the former emphasizing literature and written aspects, such as “Diary of Anne Frank,” and the later covering the “who, whats, whens and wheres” of World War II.

To facilitate interdisciplinary teaching, beginning in the 2017-18 school year at the primary center, English, art and social studies will be combined in one class. At other grade levels, more emphasis will be placed on collaborative and interdisciplinary teaching.

Concerning learning spaces, Ralston stated that a new, large group room will be constructed for the high school at the back of the building near the baseball field and new maintenance shed. Ralston said the open room, which would allow opportunities for flexible and collaborative experiences, would be roughly the size of three traditional classrooms and could hold 75 to 100 students.

Using space more efficiently in the elementary building, Ralston said, included redesigning the library. Changing from traditional stationary bookshelves, Ralston suggested books being placed on moveable shelves with casters so that space areas could be easily modified. In the primary building, Ralston said that beneath the gym and stage area was an unused area that could be redesigned to be an expanded Maker Lab area, thus promoting additional project-based learning.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable changes will be the implementation of 1:1 technology. Starting this fall, Ralston said, each student throughout the district in grades kindergarten through third will receive an iPad. Students in other grades will be given a Chrome Book. Already scheduled are “trade-ins” based on the standard life cycle of the equipment. The iPad a new kindergarten student receives in the fall of 2017 is expected to last four years, when the then-fourth-grader will receive a new Chrome Book. Likewise, the three-year expected life of a Chrome Book lends itself to a student receiving a new Chrome Book when beginning the seventh and 10th grades.

With such technology, Ralston said that teachers will be using more open-education resources, allowing them to to customize content by picking and choosing material as opposed to the rigid content presentation of traditional paper textbooks.

For high school students, an anticipated benefit of 1:1 technology will be the elimination of the computer lab, made obsolete by personal, portable technology. Instead, a “‘Lopes Lounge,” containing a coffee shop and smoothie bar, will be created in the former lab space. The lounge, Ralston said, will be run by students in the Life Skills program.

Other changes Ralston said he would like to see in the district, most likely “a couple of years down the road, include the creation of a strings program and and expansion of the foreign language program into younger grades.

Summing up the information portion of the meeting, Ralston stated, “All of us went to school. We’ve been indoctrinated to think the way we were taught. But we need to do everything we can to turn our great
program into an even greater program.” Then he concluded with a quote by Walt Disney, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”

Beginning the audience suggestion-and-question portion of the town hall meeting, Ralston introduced various administration members and then opened the floor for suggestions and comments.

Several parents voiced praise of the district’s success and vision, and more than one individual stated his family had specifically chosen to move into the Avonworth district because of the schools.

One parent expressed concerns with the 1:1 technology. She said that for young children, her pediatrician suggested no more than two hours per day of “screen time,” which included television, computer and other electronic devices. She questioned how much of the school day would be spent using the iPad. Ralston responded that computers would not be used constantly and that the personal computers were just one of many tools instructors would use.

Several people encouraged the expansion of music programs, saying that music was good for both the brain and the soul.

Questions about the block scheduling were asked. Ralston said the details had not yet been determined, but assured everyone that the teachers would receive adequate training and curriculum development to ensure students would stay focused during the longer classes.

Also asked was whether more staff, particularly in the music departments, was to be hired. Ralston stated that the administration had requested the school board authorize the hiring of additional teachers, and the board was expected to discuss that issue at the Monday, March 6, school board meeting.